Global communities increasingly struggle to provide ample healthful food for growing populations in the face of social and environmental pressures. Insect agriculture is one underexplored and innovative approach. Sustainable cultivation of nutrient-dense edible insects could help boost food access, support human nutrition, and mitigate key drivers of climate change. The edible insects industry is in its nascent stages, as relatively few entities have committed resources towards optimizing farming methods. Nevertheless, insect farming is poised to benefit food insecure populations, and the planet as a whole if more targeted research and conducive policies are implemented. The purpose of this paper is to outline the state of the science regarding edible insects, define a research agenda, and recommend policy action to support the growing industry. Edible insects are not a panacea for current challenges, but they have the potential to confer numerous benefits to people and the environment. Rigorous research is needed to establish optimal farming methods, strengthen food safety, understand health impacts of consumption, explore consumer acceptance, tackle ethical considerations, and investigate economic viability. A clear definition for insects as food, industry guidance support for obtaining generally regarded as safe designation, and collaboration by industry stakeholders to develop production standards will also help move the industry forward. Generating and galvanizing knowledge sharing networks, investing in critical interdisciplinary research, and advocating for conducive policies that support emerging entrepreneurs will be necessary to capitalize on the benefits of edible insects in the future.
Edible insects offer environmental and nutritional benefits, as they are characteristically nutrient-dense, are efficient biotransformers of organic material, and emit fewer greenhouse gasses than traditional livestock. Cultivating Tenebrio molitor (yellow mealworm) as ‘minilivestock’ is one possible means of increasing access to insect protein for food insecure populations. Tenebrio molitor growth and nutrient content varies with diet and rearing conditions, but little is known about the precise impact of poor quality feedstocks, such as maize crop residue (stover). Stover is widely available across sub-Saharan Africa where maize is a common dietary staple. Early instar larvae were reared under controlled conditions on three feed substrates: a standard control; a mixed soy, maize grain, and stover diet; and a 100% stover diet. Larvae reared for 32 d were analyzed for total amino acid profile, crude protein, and iron content. Larvae fed the three diets contained all essential amino acids for human nutrition and compared favorably to other traditional protein sources. The mixed diet contained 40% stover by weight and yielded amino acid values similar to the control diet, suggesting that some grain feedstock could be replaced with stover without hampering nutrient content. A second experiment demonstrated that T. molitor were able to complete metamorphosis and survive on a 100% stover diet for multiple generations. These results suggest that stover could be a suitable dietary component for T. molitor, which could facilitate the development of low-cost insect farming systems in low-resource settings that stand to benefit from increased access nutrient-dense edible insects.
Edible insects are often considered a nutritious, protein-rich, environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional livestock with growing popularity among North American consumers. While the nutrient composition of several insects is characterized, all potential health impacts have not been evaluated. In addition to high protein levels, crickets contain chitin and other fibers that may influence gut health. In this study, we evaluated the effects of consuming 25 grams/day whole cricket powder on gut microbiota composition, while assessing safety and tolerability. Twenty healthy adults participated in this six-week, double-blind, crossover dietary intervention. Participants were randomized into two study arms and consumed either cricket-containing or control breakfast foods for 14 days, followed by a washout period and assignment to the opposite treatment. Blood and stool samples were collected at baseline and after each treatment period to assess liver function and microbiota changes. Results demonstrate cricket consumption is tolerable and non-toxic at the studied dose. Cricket powder supported growth of the probiotic bacterium, Bifidobacterium animalis, which increased 5.7-fold. Cricket consumption was also associated with reduced plasma TNF-α. These data suggest that eating crickets may improve gut health and reduce systemic inflammation; however, more research is needed to understand these effects and underlying mechanisms.
Entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—has been touted as a means to combat undernutrition and food insecurity globally. Insects offer a nutritious, environmentally friendly alternative to resource-intensive livestock. But the benefits of edible insects cannot be realized if people do not choose to eat them. We therefore examine the social acceptability of edible insects in rural Zambia, where entomophagy is common but underexplored. Through a village case study, we show that edible insects are not valued equally, are understood socially, and seem to reflect and reinforce social values. We utilize grounded theory and ethnographic methods, including semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and observation to examine collective entomophagy beliefs. While we expected to see differentiation in perceptions across groups based on kinship, we demonstrate that social values related to class, urbanism, gender, and age emerge as more germane explanations for entomophagy perceptions, reflecting their social weight. By expanding on current apperception of entomophagy behavior, our findings inform future research and efforts to promote entomophagy through minilivestock farming. Systems designed to maximize output, minimize labor, and highlight benefits are more likely to be widely accepted. We do not anticipate tribal association will be the primary limitation on minilivestock adoption in this context.
Although many insect-based foods are nutritious and often an inexpensive option for human and domesticated animal consumption, there remains a negligible market for such foods in many countries. Several environmental and economic considerations underscore the potential value of insect-based foods, and emerging science suggests that diets incorporating such foods might also convey some genuine health benefits. However, if expanded markets for insect-based foods in cultures naïve to entomophagy are to be pursued, it will be important to develop multifaceted and coordinated strategies to 1) delineate authentic health benefits, 2) explore means of optimizing insect husbandry and food processing, 3) examine cultural barriers to acceptance, 4) formulate workable approaches to marketing, and 5) address relevant food regulations. We sought to construct a multidisciplinary coalition whose goals are to investigate the above-mentioned 5 issues. Eighteen individuals from government, industry, and academia, with collective expertise in the fields of entomology, insect husbandry, human nutrition, sustainable agriculture, entomophagy, consumer product development and marketing, food-processing technologies, food regulatory affairs, and the anthropology of food selection, convened a 1-d summit and formed a tripartite organization to integrate their varied perspectives. Collaborative efforts are underway among members of this coalition to accomplish these multiple goals. Coordinating efforts between accomplished experts in relevant fields of academia, government, and industry will greatly expand our knowledge of and appreciation for the potential benefits of insect-based foodstuffs to individuals, to society, and to the sustainability of the global food supply, and thereby inform us as to how to proceed in a judicious and intelligent manner.